Herbie Hancock’s secret of great musicianship: Do your math and science homework!


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If you’ve taken even the slightest interest in popular music over, oh, the last half-century or so, you’ve doubtless encountered the artistry of Herbie Hancock. Whether it’s his suave jazz standards like ‘Watermelon Man’ or his inspired guest stints as a pianist and keyboardist on scores of pop collaborations -- his funky, elegant solo midway through Stevie Wonder’s ‘As’ makes his keyboard sound like it’s talkin’ in tongues -- Hancock has placed his mark on modern music like few other performers. Now he’s got a new gig as creative jazz chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In that capacity, he’ll be responsible for programming jazz concerts at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, bringing in guest artists and possibly commissioning new pieces.

So what are some keys to the professional success and longevity of Hancock, who turned 70 in April and seems as occupied as ever?


Well, one of them is: Study your math and science. As a self-described ‘techie,’ Hancock says his lifelong embrace of electronic experimentation has helped him stay on top as well as take advantage of evolving musical developments.

Here’s part of what he had to say on the subject during a recent interview at his Westside home:

‘I’ve always been interested in science. I used to take watches apart and clocks apart, and there’s little screws, and a little this and that, and I found out if I dropped one of them, that thing ain’t gonna work. When I was a kid, I put things back together and they never worked anyway! But just, like, going into those details, it’s kind of a scientist’s thing. And I have that kind of [mind], it’s part of my personality.’

‘I’m one of the people who helped push it in the beginning. It was easier for me because I was an engineering major in college for two years. So when synthesizers came in, they used terminology I knew. I knew what an amplifier was and I knew what it did. I had to learn some new words, like ‘fader.’ I’d never heard the word ‘fader.’ That’s kind of a new word, anyway. But I knew about wave forms. I knew what a ‘sawtooth’ was. I mean, if you studied physics, you’d learn those things. I was really good in math and I was good in science. History I wasn’t so good at, and literature wasn’t a big interest of mine, unless it’s a technical book.’

‘My father was really good with math. It’s a funny thing, I don’t remember my father or my mother being so mechanical-minded. My father always wanted to be a doctor, but he came from a really poor family in Georgia, and there was no way he was going to be a doctor. And he had to quit high school to work because my grandmother had more kids and my father was the oldest child. He had to quit high school after his second year to help support his younger siblings. And they all went to college because of my father. So they all looked up to my father as, like, ‘He’s the guy. He made the sacrifice.’ And they did, they all went to college. He’s their hero.’

Read my full interview with Hancock here.


-- Reed Johnson